The American Friend (Der amerikanishe Freund) Wim Wenders (FDR; 1977) Bruno Ganz, Denis Hopper, Lisa Kreuzer, Sam Fuller
Viewed BFI streaming 18 April 2021
Boys just want to have fun
The outstanding characteristic of Wenders’ movie, was that it felt like everyone making it was having fun, enjoying the caper in the knowledge they’re riding the crest of a wave of a different type of film making. Probably they knew like all surfers that the ride doesn’t go on forever. This wave, like all waves, would soon lap into the sands.
In this respect ‘American Friend’ reminded me of those early movies by Godard: ‘Pierrot le Fou’, ‘A Bout de Soufle’, ‘Vivre sa Vie’ and in particular ‘Alphaville’.
The overwhelming vibes from these films was that everyone was having a good time. These films of Godard were parties; the viewers were simply invited to join in and exit the cinema having had a good time. Godard set up these films as enjoyable spoofs. In themselves they were satires on ‘serious’ film making as practiced by the ‘film industry’ where the bottom line was the most important reading for the producers.
Of course the content of Godard’s movies included felicitously directed and often barbed observations of the social situations and character types that made up most of the products of the film business. The characters in Godard’s scenarios played themselves. The point of their performances was to remain true to the tone of the films: detached, cool, but very direct, to camera if required. Godard made these movies with a spontaneity and élan that situated them within the tide modernism that was enveloping European societies. A tide that almost without being noticed was effortlessly transforming these societies at a pace that was outrunning most peoples capacity to understand. They saw and consumed the tokens: the Coca Cola, the Marlborough cigarettes, the Automobiles, without knowing what they meant. In the cities, space and time were being redefined recasting the parameters of the possible and allowable interactions between people.
In ‘American Friend’ Wenders sort of picks up where Godard left off. Making a film in ‘play’ mode in the knowledge that ‘play’ has an specific political dimension. Wenders’ movie reminded me of ‘Alphaville’. Both are parodies of the ‘Noir’ genre, consciously imitating the form without any intention of taking it seriously, to exploit its potential for saying or observing something about social relations. In best ‘Noir’ tradition the plots of both movies are grounded in arcane far fetched propositions that are devices that permit exploration of social types and of contemporary spaces, and their interaction. ‘The American Friend’ is a movie of pure surface without any pretence at depth (emotional, spiritual etc) and in this respect ‘American Friends’ design probes and exploits the social and spacial organisation of modernity.
The ‘types’ Wenders puts in play are straight out of the top drawer of Brechtian analysis of Capitalism’s social strata. There are exploiters and exploited, the privileged and the victims. There is no appeal from exploitation, only death. Criminality and gangsterism are necessary concomitants of a system that spawns caricatures of itself to control those areas of the social matrix that are beyond Capitalism’s immediate control. The caste deliver the mechanics of their lines with declamatory intonation as the plot delivers its neo-Brechtian design with appropriate filmic panache.
What is interesting in Wenders’ scenario is the interrelating of narrative character and space.
Traditionally large spaces such a churches palaces courts of law have been structured so as to overawe the individual. The vastness of these buildings with their concomitant symbolism, is designed to strip those entering of their individuation, reducing them to objects of a metaphysical apparatus. As souls, petitioners, subjects, people are reduced to being adjuncts of these spaces. Many contemporary settings are also constructed on a monumental scale: subway systems, train stations, airports, atria, auditoriums, stadia, all built to serve functional purposes but designed as environments containing a meta-text to project the power of the institutions that own and run them.
‘American Friend’ points to a simple stratagem by which the individual can subvert or evade being subject to the meta-messages of alienated power to which you’re exposed on entering these domains. The individual can simply psychically re-purpose their response, assimilate these places into their own fantasy for the purpose of ‘play’. Seen in the spirit of ‘play’ the subways, the stations the atria the airports are transformed into huge playgrounds where individuals can pick up the energies of childhood in endless relayed adventures of hide and seek, spacemen and aliens, goodies and baddies, love and loss. ‘Playing’ in and with space simply cuts through the power games of modernity; its structures and representations can no longer transmit their implied hierarchic meaning; we are free to create and act out our own desires, detached from the encompassing environment. Vast subway transportation systems become stalking grounds for assassinations, airport lounges sites of illicit assignation, underground walkways perilous passages of hell death and fear to be transitioned as quick as possible. Older ‘Noir’ movies had always realised this aspect of modernity, hence the appropriation of trains as locations of murderous action, and of course there is a classic killing scene in ‘American Friend’. But Wenders movie completes this aspect of Noir logic, and extends an ideology of play out into the systems of post modernist control logic.
‘The American Friend’ is a movie which is inclusive of its audience. It envelopes those who watch. Wenders askes his audience to be part of the fun, to see what is happening in life as a playful provocation. It’s not made to exploit or manipulate emotions sentiments or beliefs. The characters are two dimensional and have no development or realisations, yet it is a subversive film that projects ‘play’ as transformative force capable of undermining the bleak physical and psychic structural messages of modernism.
And certainly the caste look like they’ve enjoyed themselves. Hopper, Fuller, Wenders and Ganz all had reputations for raising hell big time, drink drugs everything. Of course some may have found it insufferable. In 1978 a year after ‘The American Friend’ was made Lisa Kreuzer divorced Wim Wenders.